When it’s on: Thursday, 27 December (1.35 am)
This holiday TV schedule features a revival in Alfred Hitchcock films, which is never a bad thing in itself but links nicely with Hitchcock, Sacha Gervasi’s biopic about the making of Psycho. As is traditional with films on the sniff for Academy recognition, Hitchcock’s been doing the rounds in America for over a month whilst we Brits have to wait until February, but not to worry as the BBC are putting out their own dramatisation about the Master, The Girl (Wednesday, 26 December at 9.00 pm). This stars the usually brilliant Toby Jones, and chronicles Hitch’s treatment of his leading lady, Tippi Hedren (Siena Miller) during the making of The Birds. The Girl promises to wade into less salacious territory by telling Hitchcock’s relationship with Hedren as a story of obsession, whereas the theatrical Hitchcock seems content to remain on safer ground with its focus on the importance of his wife, Alma (played in the film by Helen Mirren, opposite Anthony Hopkins’s Hitch).
Behind such dips into the nature of Hitchcock’s attitude to women are the films themselves, which of course are always worth a watch. A virtually peerless triple bill of The Lady Vanishes, The 39 Steps and Notorious are scheduled for later in the week, whilst the BBC are following The Girl with Rebecca and Mr and Mrs Smith. As a cross-section of his work, the Oscar winning Rebecca feels like the obvious choice, less so the latter, which remains an eccentricity within Hitchcock’s body of work. The lack of suspense, mystery and dark deeds is palpable as the Master tried his hand at directing a screwball comedy. The result is an unevenly entertaining and likeable farce, which lacks any real heft but doesn’t outstay its welcome. The stars are good fun and look as though they’re having a great time working together, and the whole piece feels as light as air. Best of all, it isn’t to be confused with the more recent Mr and Mrs Smith that served as a vehicle for Brad Pitt and Angelina Jones and remains best known for bringing two A-Listers together in real life, hardly a glowing recommendation for the film.
Years later, Hitchcock would dismiss Mr and Mrs Smith as a minor footnote in his uneasy early years as Selznick’s hired director, claiming that all he did was photograph the scenes as they’d been written. This suggestion of a lifeless affair for all concerned clashes with the contemporary desire shared by the director and star, Carole Lombard, to collaborate on a production, after the latter had picked up on the barbed comedy typical in Hitch’s films. Concentrating on laughs at the expense of the usual suspense levels, Mr and Mrs Smith has the look and feel of an anomaly, indeed it rarely achieves the sense of being directed by Alfred Hitchcock at all.
The plot concerns the eponymous married couple, their wedded bliss held together by a series of complicated rules and traditions. David Smith (Robert Montgomery) is a well heeled Manhattan lawyer, who is allowed to leave aside all his duties when he rows with his wife (Lombard), the result of which finds the pair unable to leave their bedroom until the issues are resolved. Whilst it’s clear the couple’s very much in love, David tests the patience and goodwill of Ann when he declares he would stay single if he had the chance to live it all over again, and then both partners learn their marriage is legally null and void, thanks to a bit of state-shifting red tape. The stage is set for a battle of the sexes as Ann determines to prove David wrong, treating her newfound freedom as an opportunity to fling with his legal partner, Jeff (Gene Raymond), whilst Mr Smith is first bemused at her behaviour and later does all he can to win her back.
A commercial success upon its release, Mr and Mrs Smith is never less than fun, good natured fun at that, with it being made clear at the start that the Smiths are mad about each other and thereby ensuring a happy ending. It’s Jeff who emerges as the ultimate butt of the joke; he fancies Ann and does his dastardly best to muscle in on her, but instead he’s caught up in the Smiths’ sexual politics, treated as a dupe whilst she does everything she can to prick the jealous conscience of her man. Still, the material’s handled lightly enough. It’s equally obvious that no real harm will be done to any of the people involved. They’ll remain friends with Jeff, poor Jeff, who’s reduced at one point to explaining plot points to his old fashioned parents whilst on the toilet.
The actors are completely fine. Montgomery was second choice as David, Hitchcock preferring the unavailable Cary Grant, but he brings an agreeable bewilderment to his role as the man who slowly realises he will actually have to work to save his marriage. Raymond’s just as good in a part that might very well have painted him as scheming and duplicitous; the character turns out to be so honest and honourable, even when blind drunk and alone with Ann, that there’s just nothing to dislike. But the films belongs to Lombard, blonde and beautiful, especially in her early, ‘bedhead’ scenes, and tragically appearing in her penultimate film before dying in a plane crash at the age of 33. As the feisty Ann, it seems the camera loves her just as much as both men in Mr and Mrs Smith, even when she’s stuck forty feet in the air in a broken down ferris wheel car, rain battering her ceaselessly.
Mr and Mrs Smith: ***